Helmut Newton: 'The Bad & The Beautiful' Shows a Vulnerable Side of the Legendary Photographer
Updated: Jul 22
By Jalyn Mayer, July 20, 2020
In his documentary film Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, Gero von Boehm takes on the life of iconic photographer, Helmut Newton. The film interviews Newton's famous friends, subjects, and the controversy that followed his legendary body of work. Fashion royalty and celebs like Anna Wintour, Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini, and Charlotte Rampling, are interviewed in the film, just to name a few. The documentary paints a delicate, vulnerable picture of one of the most influential photographers of all time.
The late artist revolutionized the fashion photography world, noted for reflecting the radical culture of the 60s and 70s in his provocative work. While most of his colleagues tried to frame their models in beautiful locales with perfect hair and makeup, Newton went the opposite direction. Inspired by film noir, Expressionist cinema, S & M, and surrealism, Newton quickly rose to fame with images that were controversial, provocative, and heavily voyeuristic. In his own words, he loved powerful women, with his work often showcasing the innate strength women held even without the glamour of luxury designer garments and jewelry.
"He showed us that women are so strong that they don't really need haute couture. They are strong in the nude. And that's great" - Director Gero von Boehm to DW
Interviews with Helmut’s models and colleagues are combined with exclusive behind the scene footage of Helmut conducting his famous photography sessions. The film briefly covers critiques of Newton, over sexualizing the models, however the models themselves never shared the same sentiments of being objectified in his work. British singer and actress Marianne Faithfull shares a candid account of how Newton made her feel “comfortable.” Many of the featured models noted that working with the photographer in the nude offered them freedom and a sense of empowerment.
After detailing many aspects of his professional life, the film delves into Newton’s personal background as a young man growing up in Nazi-occupied Germany. Born Helmut Neustädter into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1920 before his family fled Germany in 1938. The film then follows Newton’s life to Australia where he eventually met his wife, fellow photographer June Newton. He changed his name to Helmut Newton in 1946. The documentary does an excellent job of illustrating their bond and how they each pushed each other toward excellence. June eventually made a name for herself as a photographer under the pseudonym April Springs.
"The vision reamined totally identifiably Helmut. The clothes could of changed. The girls change. But the actual image - you could look at any image and say that's a Helmut Newton photograph, and there aren't that many photographers of which you could say that" - Anna Wintour
However, this highlight reel of Newton’s life lacks the traditional objectivity of a documentary film. Even though the film title alludes to the positive and negative reactions to his work, his many controversies are glossed over, rarely even mentioned. Critics of Newton’s work were not interviewed, which is too bad because they would have added depth to the documentary. While there is a pre-recorded TV segment included in which esteemed writer, Susan Sontag, addresses Newton directly as a misogynist. The scene felt inorganic to the film.
By the end of the film, you have fallen in love with Helmut Newton and most of his criticism seems misguided. It was obvious that the purpose of director Gero von Boehm was achieved through the film’s intimate framing of the iconic fashion photographer.
At its core, Helmut Newton: The Bad & The Beautiful is a love letter to the late photographer. You can feel the love director von Boehm has for Helmut and the love Helmut had for his models. Filled with Helmut’s gorgeous, thought-provoking photography and featuring many influential models and actresses, the documentary is 100% worth a watch.
BIG MAGAZINE OFFICIAL FILM RATING: 3.5/5 Stars